Don’t stand between a stubborn old man and a million dollars – he’s liable to ignore you and try to walk hundreds of miles to get what’s owed him. This is one of the more surface-level lessons one can learn from Nebraska, the latest film from director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants). It stars Bruce Dern as elderly alcoholic Woody, who believes wholeheartedly that he has won $1,000,000 in a marketing sweepstake, and wishes to travel from Montana, where he lives, to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his prize. His embattled son, David (Will Forte) is eventually shanghaied into accompanying him, much to the dismay of Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb).
This modest premise develops into a far more powerful drama as the minimalist plot unfolds, with the relationships amongst Woody’s family and friends tested by the apparent riches he is expecting. That Woody is unable to name anything he would spend the money on except a new truck and a water condenser is the first hint of many that his single-mindedness is not purely motivated by the pecuniary reward on offer. David, his son, is certainly aware that the money is a pipe-dream, and Will Forte conveys his sense of despairing concern touchingly, always patient but occasionally justifiably curt.
However, most of the film is dominated by folk older than Forte, and it is the behaviour of these elderly people which leads to much of the humour in a film which can certainly be reductively labelled a comedy. The golden oldies of Montana and Nebraska tell it like it is, in short. Kate does not hesitate to label her husband’s dead family members whores and saps, and swears like a trooper when the situation calls for it. The scheming figure from Woody’s past, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), attempts to exercise a physically threatening dominance, despite being nearly as old as everyone else in Hawthorne, where Woody and David are waylaid and which comes across like the town that time forgot. The lack of visible youth is a telling sign that Payne wants us to dwell on the past in the same way that most of the elderly characters are forced to.
Bruce Dern’s Woody is a marvel of character acting; his stoop, his walk, his absent looks and reticent speech all contribute to his personality. This personality is one which only grows on you as you watch, and as his reasons for the pursuit of his pot of gold become less and less entangled with the possibility of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Mentions of the Korean War are a glimpse at the layers behind this man, and are just one way in which Nebraska deals with a lot more than would seem evident at first. Even on the surface, though, the film shines. Its cinematography is stunning, the choice to film in black and white one which justifies itself consistently throughout the runtime; the lingering shots of pastoral scenes further distance the mood from modernity, and the entrance into Lincoln near the finale is jarring after the meditative American countryside. Special mention must also go to Mark Orton’s superb soundtrack, which only increases the sense of place and mood.
The slow pace of Nebraska might not be some people’s thing, and there were very brief windows where scenes could have been shortened, but for the most part the decisions made by Alexander Payne all served to further immerse the audience in the feeling of retrospect and antiquarianism. Despite some sentimentality, the cast here do a fine job with a fine script, producing one of the finest films of the year.